January 15, 2010

What a pleasant surprise

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 8:33 am

As happens from time to time, I got spam bombed by comment spam this morning. As I was going through the comment buffer, I noticed the comment on the previous post by Paul. I am going to combine this with the questions raised by Art, because I think the answers intertwine beautifully. I shall also pull segments from Paul’s comment to illustrate.

In this victim centered society we now live in I believe it is very easy for individuals to excuse sinful personal choices they have made to an “addiction.”

I profoundly agree with this. I have seen this effect personally, and enough qualified research that I feel comfortable asserting that the data is clear; people have a tendency to externalize their actions by categorizing it as an addiction. This directly relates to Art’s earlier question: “That aside, please clarify for me what the negative effect is in your view of misslabeling as addicted those that are not.”


This is the first problem arising from misuse of the term that I would like to illustrate. It actually reduces the capacity of the person to overcome their pathological behavior when the promulgation of the term “addiction” creates dissociation from the problem. Paul’s comment eloquently illustrates this.

To keep some logical consistency, I’m going to continue with some other negative side-effects of this mislabeling before returning to the main arc of Paul’s thought. My second concern with misuse of the term is counter-productivity. Social research has been very clear that when persuading people not to engage in a given behavior, casting it in terms of: “This is horrible, so many people are doing it, if we don’t change, the results will be really bad” actually results in an increased rate of the behavior.


Theorists have postulated that this effect is associated with the human tendency to align ourselves with our immediate group. From an anecdotal perspective, I’ve been in congregations where the speaker has said:

‘Look around you, if you are not struggling with pornography addiction, then the person sitting next to you is. You need to realize how prevalent this terrible thing is and avoid it.”

This is exactly the sort of argument that would produce the opposite effect the speaker was going for. Later on, I will address the probability that the addiction rate was really so high, but merely from a meta-discourse angle, this is a terrible way to go about encouraging the behavior you wish to promote.


I think my next argument will tend not be persuasive to the devout, but here it goes. Further to my thesis that the term addiction is being wildly misapplied in this community, I’ve seen frequent incidences where very occasional use of porn is labeled as an addiction. Something along the lines of looking at 1 playboy every 4 months makes you an addict. Now, there is no question that this particular community considers that a sin, and I have no interest at present in addressing that. I’ll stipulate it is a sin. The assertion that this level of porn use constitutes an addiction depends on a number of assertions. One of which is that the negative consequences of that this level of porn use qualifies as a pathology.

I would imagine nearly every Mormon reading this is nodding their heads vigorously and saying: Yep! Sure is!

I’d like to side-step from that to point out what the zero tolerance policy of Mormonism is based on (I’m probably leaving some out by accident).

  1. Any porn is spiritually destructive and incompatible with holding the priesthood
  2. Any Porn use can lead to worse things

#1 is an argument from faith. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but this is very different than the clinical definition of addiction. As Paul points out, visit an actual addiction center to level-set yourself. Virtually none of the folks in that congregation were at a level of clinical addiction. Many, maybe even half were struggling with behavior their religion calls sin (although I doubt it). If anything, this level of behavior is much more similar to what a clinician would call an impulse control disorder.

With regard to #2, that is certainly true, but this is true of many things. For example, some studies have shown that vigorous exercise can be as addictive as heroin. Personally, I think that scholarship is suspect, but I’m going to use it here because it suits my point, I find it funny, and I hope you will not question my sources. =)  The probability of infrequent porn use leading to pathologically bad, life-destroying addicition is my main point.  On a smell-test level, the data just isn’t there to support the culturally-held Mormon view on porn.

I also find it interesting that part of the meta-discourses of Mormonism is the adage ‘moderation in all things’. However, from an outside perspective, Mormonism tends to completely outlaw things that have even a small chance of being addictive. That’s a topic for another time.

 For now, I will stipulate that #2 is true by strict definition, but I would challenge the TBM audience to the following exercise. After the type of anti-porn lesson I am describing here, we will pass out a slip of paper to all the folks in the audience. We will then ask them to write down what they think the probability is that occasional porn use will lead to life-destroying effects. We will then take the statistical distribution of those answers and compare them to actual data. How many of you think the predicted median rate will match the actual observed rate by less than 1 standard deviation?

Improper ‘treatment’

The study and treatment of addiction has made a lot of progress in the last 100 years. There are much improved methods for dealing with these issues. 12 step programs are well-known (which include ample reference to higher powers). I think that this is an excellent illustration of Paul’s comment that addiction is often closely related to filling a spiritual void. Intuitively, I think he is right, but off hand, I don’t know of any research to back it. I suspect this audience will be willing to accept it as a given.

That being said, the speed with which untrained folks label their sins and/or impulse control issues to be an addiction is closely followed by a tendency to see the actual treatment for addiction (12 step programs for example) as the appropriate antidote for their sin. From my observation, Mormons tend to be dualistic here. They will keep going with their religious principles and try to bring in 12 step programs to supplement that. That’s probably a good move. However, sending 16 year old Johnny to a sex addicts 12 step progam because he looked at 2 playboys a year is much more likely to create a net worse situation than a net better situation.

These programs are for actual addictions, not sins with faith-based pathologies. Now, this argument will only gain traction with you if I have already convinced you the pathology level has been mis-identified. I suspect most LDSers are not persuaded. That being the case, I would again encourage folks who have yet clicked to go here to read a professional’s view on the harms of over-use of 12 step programs to treat non-addictions.

Loss of Credibility

I suspect that of all my arguments, the next one might be most persuasive to an LDSer. Folks just aren’t doing the math. In my experience, the villianization of porn leads folks to make some quite outlandish statements on the likely pathology of porn. As an aside, I have noticed a distinct trend from official church sources to avoid this in the last few years. More and more they are moving to a spiritually based argument rather than a pathologically based one. I think that is appropriate.

Anyway, back to my story telling. A typically anti-porn lesson will go something like this:

  • Porn is bad
  • Porn is terribly addictive
  • Huge numbers of LDSers are addicted of porn (hard numbers are rare, so let’s go with the 50% from earlier).
  • Porn will wreck your marriage, increase chances of becoming a child molester, etc. etc.

Again, this is taught less and less by authoritative LDS sources (in my opinion) but is widely promulgated in congregations (in my experience). My problem is that the math doesn’t add up. To illustrate this, I shall borrow from one of my favorite libertarian bloggers on similarly nutty assertions about crystal meth:

Here are their numbers, copied right from the site:

• 1 in 7 high school students will try meth.
• 99 percent of first-time meth users are hooked after just the first try.
• Only 5 percent of meth addicts are able to kick it and stay away.
• From the first hit to the last breath, the life expectancy of a habitual
meth user is only 5 years.

So 14.3% (1 in 7) try meth, 99% of those who try are hooked, and 95% of those hooked stay hooked, and all of those hooked die in five years. So .143 x .99 x .95 or 13.45% of all kids are dying on average by the age of 23. Wow. There must be a really huge conspiracy out there to cover up all these deaths. Given that there are about 17,000,000 high school age kids, that means that in the next 5 years or so nearly 2.3 million of them are going to die. And adults who run anti-drug programs wonder why kids don’t take their warnings seriously.

When a church leader gets up and says that porn use had increased to epidemic proportions, and that porn significantly increases divorce rates, the logic there should predict a detectibly elevated, and correlated, use of porn. Well, a quick look at the data shows that isn’t true. Divorce rates are not correlated to porn use rates. Porn use rates have gone way, way, way up for many years.  Divorce rates have not.  I’ll spare us linking the data here, but it should stand on its own. Divorce rates have not increased at anywhere remotely near the prevalence of porn use. This leads the audience to conclude:

  • My religious leader is misrepresenting the rate of porn use
  • Porn isn’t as bad as my religious leader is making it out to be

Neither of these is in the best interests of the religious leader.

At this point, I need to refine my argument. Some research has shown that Mormon temple marriages experience significantly lower divorce rates than other religions and statistical clusters.  One of the proposed explanations for that is the strict standard of behavior. Let’s go ahead and stipulate that is true,even though the research has some potential issues. If this were the case, we would expect to see the divorce rate for Mormons going through the roof as they violate these standards (which they are apparently doing left, right and center).  As an aside, some other research has shown Mormons having a slightly higher divorce rate than Atheists.   I’m not going to get into that because it is not relevant to my argument on the correlation gap within the stated assertions.

While divorce rates for most groups are going up (at varying speeds) that isn’t being seen in LDS populations at anywhere near the reported levels of porn addiction. Either LDS women are the most tolerant of addiction of any group on the planet (maybe, but I doubt it), or the LDS men are beating porn addictions at astounding rates (so much so that I would imagine we will run out of potential addicts very soon) or the rate of addictive porn use is wildly exaggerated (I think you know my view).

As a side point, I find the data behind divorce rates to be fascinating, particularly the notion that the external factor most closely correlated to divorce is the ease of the legal structure in obtaining a divorce. For example consider Italy (rife with what LDSers would consider porn addiction) has a divorce rate much lower than expected given its statistical profile. The causative factor is thought to be the 3 year waiting period for a divorce.

Bad Gender Roles

I have regularly heard Mormon leaders (not high level, I’m talking bishops, eq presidents, sometimes stake presidents, and the ever-amusing high priest group leaders) promulgate the idea that men are so vulnerable to porn, and porn is so bad, that their wives should sort the mail to remove all the catalogs that might contain pictures of ladies’ underwear or sportswear. This sets up a horrible disproportionality in a marriage that I think is highly destructive. It also illustrates the really wacky scale of what these Mormons consider to be porn.

If we ever come to the end of this thread, I’ll blather on a bit about why I think we end up in a place where an adult man needs to be insulated from underwear catalogs. For now, I will just say to the men: if you are really functioning on a level where you can’t handle exposure to that kind of thing without going round the twist, you do need help, but not because you are a porn addict. Man up. Sheesh.

Intermission summary

Anyway, back to the show. I suggest that the sensitivity to porn use, and the perceived negative impact on marriage in LDS circles is due to the fact that the religion, and the spouses involved, have a zero tolerance policy. Any time to you don’t meet your partner’s expectation (particularly when you swore you would) it is going to create a marital problem. The presence of a marital problem doesn’t indicate addiction by itself. I’m sure there are Mormons struggling with bona fide addictions. The significant majority either are not, or the addiction is not nearly as pathological as is represented.

I’ve well and truly trashed the three paragraph rule. I hope I still have some readers enduring through. In any case, I’ll arbitrarily stop here to pause for thoughts and comments.


  1. I like the meth example.

    Comment by mary ann — January 15, 2010 @ 10:58 am

  2. An additional concern (did you already hint at this? if so, sorry) is that if hundreds of thousands of Mormon men really are addicted to porn, I guess bishops are now in the business of treating addictions. And if God wants them to provide treatment for porn addiction, maybe they should treat (and I don’t mean spiritually treat) gambling and meth addicts too.


    One reason it matters what you call a problem is that the name of a problem signals who is qualified to work on it and what solutions should be tried.

    Comment by Paul — January 16, 2010 @ 6:49 pm

  3. “Look around you, if you are not struggling with pornography addiction, then the person sitting next to you is. You need to realize how prevalent this terrible thing is and avoid it.”

    Blame it on an educator’s impulse (could it be an addiction?), but I have to share an idea I teach about here and support one of Matthew’s observations: The next time you need to get someone to stop doing something, one of the worst things you can do is highlight that a lot of other people in that person’s ingroup are doing the same thing.

    We’re social critters; no one is immune to norms.

    Comment by Paul — January 16, 2010 @ 7:04 pm

  4. thank you for articulating so nicely a viewpoint that i’ve held for some time now.

    Comment by suzanne — January 19, 2010 @ 1:57 am

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